When Josh Rosen lit up Virginia in his college debut in September, it was difficult not to think about the future. The UCLA true freshman ruthlessly picked apart the Cavaliers’ defense, rifling the ball in tight windows and displaying uncanny poise for a quarterback his age. Rosen’s performance (351 yards and three touchdowns against zero interceptions on 28 of 35 passing in a 34–16 win) was so superb that it briefly catapulted him into the Heisman Trophy conversation.
Not only had he backed up his massive recruiting hype—he was considered the top quarterback in the class of 2015, and Rivals.com national recruiting director Mike Farrell described him over the summer as “the best quarterback prospect I have seen in all my years of scouting pro-style guys”—Rosen also eclipsed what any observer could have reasonably expected from a quarterback making his first college start, even one as highly regarded as him. How many true freshmen can make throws that look like this?
Though Rosen’s play has waxed and waned in the ensuing weeks, it’s difficult to dispute the impression he made in that sterling debut: that he could develop into something really special. One obvious way to help ensure that development is to enhance the pieces around him. That's what makes one recent addition to UCLA’s 2016 recruiting class so intriguing.
Theo Howard is rated the No. 5 wide receiver and No. 32 player in the country, according to Rivals.com. His verbal commitment, announced Nov. 1 in a message posted on Twitter, was the Bruins’ payoff for a courtship that began more than a year ago. When UCLA offered Howard in September 2014, he described it as “very big.” Yet Howard tells SI.com that early in his recruitment he wanted to leave the state of California and “just try something,” which led to his verbal commitment to Oregon in March.
Howard says he had a “great time” on his unofficial visit to Eugene but later realized he picked a school too early. Howard withdrew his pledge in August to the reported surprise of some members of the Ducks’ class—including one who said Howard “was the main one making our class great.” For the Ducks, his defection probably stung even more considering it occurred as Howard was strengthening his case as one of the best wideouts in the country. In its national rankings update later that month, Rivals.com bumped Howard up 38 spots.
Crosstown rivals UCLA and USC emerged as strong contenders for Howard, who also took an official visit to Texas A&M in October. The Westlake (Calif.) High standout says he eventually settled on the Bruins less than three months after reopening his recruitment because of the program’s location, in addition to “just me feeling comfortable with the coaching staff.” It’s obvious Howard is a massive addition for UCLA; his highlight reels showcase long, winding runs around flailing defenders, and he lists scholarship offers from more than 20 programs.
Yet Howard’s decision seems even more significant given the Bruins’ recent track record of recruiting wide receivers. If Howard signs with UCLA, he’d be the highest ranked player listed as a WR by Rivals.com that the program has landed since 2002, the first year in which the service ranked prospects. Devin Fuller, the No. 37 recruit in the class of 2012, was classified as an athlete by Rivals.com and arrived in Westwood as a quarterback before switching to wide receiver. Jordan Payton, No. 93 in the same class, is the last wide receiver ranked in the top 95 that the Bruins have added.
It's not for lack of trying that UCLA hasn’t brought in many highly touted receivers lately. The Bruins have swung and missed on a number of big-time recruits. They were one of five finalists for John Curtis Christian (La.) High’s Malachi Dupre, a five-star prospect in the class of 2014 who chose LSU on National Signing Day. Less than a year later, Christian Kirk, another five-star prospect, picked Texas A&M over UCLA and Arizona State. And on signing day this year, Equanimeous St. Brown, a four-star prospect from Servite (Calif.) High, announced he was headed to Notre Dame instead of the Bruins, USC, Stanford or Utah.
It doesn’t help that UCLA didn’t produce a 1,000-yard receiver in the three full seasons since Jim Mora was hired as head coach (Payton has 904 yards with two regular season games plus a bowl game and possibly a Pac-12 title game still to play). To appraise Howard's potential production, though, it’s better to disregard that stretch. Rosen already looks like one of the better quarterbacks in the Pac-12 and he should improve with more experience running the Bruins’ offense. In Howard, he’ll have a transcendent talent to throw to who can make catches in traffic, put linebackers on ice skates and gallop away from defensive backs.
“He has great hands, probably the best set of hands out here on the West Coast,” says Blair Angulo, a recruiting analyst who covers prospects on the West Coast for Rivals.com. “And he does a lot of his work after the catch. He’s really special in open space. He’s a guy that will take a slip screen 80 yards for a touchdown. He’s also a guy that will run really great routes. So from an all-around standpoint, I think he’s very versatile and has a lot of different skill sets that I think are important.”
Howard could become one of Rosen’s top targets right away. Two of UCLA’s top four receivers, Payton and Fuller, are seniors, and Howard plans to enroll early, giving him more time to build chemistry with Rosen. He’ll be joined by four other players in the Bruins’ 2016 class who could play wide receiver: top-150 prospects Darian Owens and Dymond Lee and athletes Demetric Felton and Marquis Lawson. (Though listed as a wide receiver by recruiting websites, Lee said he pledged to UCLA as a dual-threat quarterback, and Lawson potentially could line up as a defensive back.)
There’s a chance UCLA will add at least one more wideout to its 2016 class. It helps that the pool of top-end prospects at the position in the surrounding area is remarkably deep. Says Angulo: “Out here on the West Coast, it’s really been pegged as the Year of the Receiver.” Consider that 11 of California’s top 33 ranked players in the class of 2016, according to Rivals.com, are listed as wide receivers. That compares to three each in the classes of ’15 and ’14. Before the 2016 class, there had not been more than eight (’12) in the top 33 dating to ’03. And several of the top 2016 WRs remain uncommitted, including Dylan Crawford, the No. 15 recruit in California; Javon McKinley, No. 16; Damian Alloway, No. 20; and Steffon McKnight No. 33.
While USC offers stiff competition for local talent, the three leading receivers (JuJu Smith-Schuster, Adoree’ Jackson, Stephen Mitchell Jr.) for the program that considers itself Wide Receiver U are underclassmen. The Trojans also secured commitments from five wide receivers in the class of 2016 by September, including four-star La Puente, Calif., product Tyler Vaughns and two from the South. USC’s decision to dip into Georgia (four-star Josh Imatorbhebhe) and Alabama (four-star Velus Jones) for receivers in a year in which there was an abundance of talent at the position in its own backyard opened the door for other programs.
UCLA is believed to be pursuing Santa Margarita Catholic High’s Crawford, Centennial High’s McKinley, Summit High’s Alloway and Oaks Christian (Calif.) High’s Michael Pittman—a four-star former Bruins commit who later backed off and pledged to USC but reportedly is considering taking a visit to Westwood. All of those players currently rank in the top 160 of the Rivals250. Says Angulo: “USC is always going to get their guys, but I think the depth at receiver has really helped schools like UCLA and Arizona State and even Oregon and some others here in the Pac-12.”
Still, even if UCLA strikes out on its remaining wide receiver targets, it has already reeled in one of the West Coast’s top prospects in Howard. Setting aside the rest of the Bruins’ 2016 recruiting class—which ranks 11th in the country and second among Pac-12 programs, according to Rivals.com—that is a big step forward given the program’s recent inability to lure elite perimeter playmakers. The pairing of Howard and Rosen could be a nightmare for the rest of the Pac-12 for years to come.